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Asian States Close In on Fighter Deals

Feb. 10, 2014 - 07:04PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
Aviation Industry Gathers For Singapore Airshow 20
An F-16C fighter from the Republic of Singapore Air Force performs during the Singapore Airshow 2012. Issues at the forefront of the 2014 Singapore Airshow are upgrading F-16s and/or buying F-35s. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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TAIPEI — As regional powers gather at the Singapore Airshow this week, two issues will be at the forefront: upgrading their F-16s and/or buying F-35s.

The biggest beneficiary in these fighter jet programs is Lockheed Martin, which has been selected by the US Air Force as the system integrator for the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) program that will upgrade the radar and avionics on 300 F-16s.

Singapore and Taiwan will be hitching their own F-16 upgrades to the CAPES program as well, depending largely on whether the US decides to continue funding CAPES, which is in doubt. However, Lockheed still benefits by being the only fifth-generation fighter maker on the market. Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and even Taiwan have plans to procure the F-35.

Without doubt, China stands out as the No. 1 reason for the interest in new or upgraded fighters. Over the past few years, China has pushed the envelope on territorial claims in the South China and East China seas. In November, China announced a new air defense identification zone over much of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku islands, administered by Japan.

China also has demonstrated a remarkable talent for surprising US defense analysts who study its air force. Despite agreement among US experts that China was a decade away from fielding an aircraft carrier and rolling out stealth fighters, aircraft manufacturers Chengdu and Shenyang conducted flight tests on not one, but two stealth fighters — the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 — in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Constant assurances from various think tanks in Washington indicated China would have serious difficulties fielding a carrier-borne fighter. Photographs showing the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark inside the aircraft carrier Liaoning’s hangar bay were dismissed as props for dignitaries. Skid marks on the carrier’s runway were “painted” there to fool Western analysts.

The Chinese proved them wrong again when the J-15, a clone of the Russian Su-33, appeared on Chinese TV roaring off Liaoning’s flight deck in late 2012. Late last year, reports from China indicated that a recent exercise in the South China Sea included more than 100 sorties by the J-15 from the Liaoning.

These reports have reinforced the region’s appetite to keep fourth-generation fighters tuned and ready to fight, and to seek new F-16C/Ds or the fifth-generation F-35 joint strike fighter.

“China has turned into Lockheed Martin’s greatest salesman ever,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Virginia-based Teal Group.

China’s aggressive military posturing and the leadership’s rhetoric, coupled with Beijing’s “somewhat premature efforts to field stealth fighters and an aircraft carrier, have highlighted East Asian interest in fifth-generation fighters,” he said.

China’s actions also have brought about the need for better gear on fourth-generation jets, particularly active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars and improved electronic warfare systems, Aboulafia said.

“Right now, most countries seem to be balancing their budgets between relatively small investments in F-35s, coupled with upgrades to their current fleets,” he said.

This reflects a need for a balanced force, a desire to see F-35 mature as a design, and to leverage their sizable inventories. “After all, generational change doesn’t happen over a few years. It takes a decade or two,” Aboulafia said.

Here is the state of play of major fighter competitions and concerns for the main Asia-Pacific nations coming to Singapore this week.

South Korea

In mid-2012, BAE Systems won a competition against Lockheed to become systems integrator for an upgrade program for 130 KF-16 fighters for an estimated $2.43 billion. Raytheon’s advanced combat radar (RACR) beat Northrop Grumman’s scalable agile beam radar (SABR) for the AESA requirement. This is significantly cheaper than the US deal for Taiwan’s F-16 upgrade program for 146 fighters for an estimated $5.3 billion.

Work to upgrade Air Force KF-16 fighter jets is on track, as South Korea’s government finalized an agreement in December with the US government for BAE Systems to perform upgrades and systems integration for 134 KF-16s.

The two-stage KF-16 upgrade is valued at about $1 billion. BAE is working on the first phase to furnish detailed design requirements, including computers, displays, sensors and pilot-aircraft interface efforts; initiate software design and development; and define support training requirements.

The second phase will cover efforts to enhance the fighters’ defense capability and interop­erability between the South Korean and US air forces, according to the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, Seoul’s arms procurement agency.


The US has denied Taiwan’s request for new F-16C/D fighters needed to replace aging F-5 and Mirage 2000 jets. The denial is being blamed on China’s successful efforts to lobby the US government.

Instead, the US has granted Taiwan a hotly debated upgrade program for its remaining 146 F-16A/Bs. In 2011, the US released a $5.3 billion upgrade program based on CAPES. .

However, sources here and in Washington indicate the US might defund the CAPES program in the fiscal 2015 budget proposal. If so, Taiwan could be left with sole responsibility for paying the development costs for the CAPES program.

As planned under CAPES, some 300 US Air Force F-16C/Ds would receive an AESA radar; a new AN/ALQ-213 electronic warfare management system; an integrated broadcast system and a central pedestal display. There will also be a new operational flight program to integrate these new systems with the aircraft’s existing avionics. Taiwan’s F-16s also would receive a new high-speed data bus modular mission computer and structural service-life extensions.

Taiwan officials were convinced when signing a letter of acceptance with the US that commonality with CAPES carried enormous cost savings. For example, among the largest-ticket item and the greatest potential savings common to CAPES and the Taiwan F-16 upgrade program is the AESA radar.

The US Air Force selected Northrop’s SABR AESA radar in July for both CAPES and Taiwan’s F-16 upgrade program, meaning that Taiwan would have saved on significant non-recurring engineering costs, estimated at $200 million, due to cost sharing with the US via CAPES. The same principle also applies to the other systems to be upgraded under CAPES.

As such, the demise of CAPES, or even just a one- or two-year funding interruption, could affect cost, schedule and risks for Taiwan’s F-16 upgrade program. Cost could rise by several hundred million dollars, which would either have to be footed entirely by Taiwan or shared with other foreign military sales customers who elect to adopt the same CAPES-defined upgrade options.

Since Taiwan’s legislature has been adamant that the $3.8 billion budget approved for the F-16 upgrade program is more or less set in stone, the likelihood of Taiwan approving a budget increase to pay for a greater share of the cost is minimal. Without additional funds to cover the shortfall from the cancellation or significant delays of CAPES, development and testing of the systems and upgrades planned for CAPES and Taiwan’s F-16 upgrade would also likely suffer significant delays.

“What Taiwan could, and should, do is to actively explore legal remedies for an exit strategy in case of a worst-case scenario,” a Taiwan defense consultant said. Taiwan’s military must also seriously consider options for restructuring the program.

“For example, Taiwan could prioritize the upgrade work into phases and perform only the most urgent (and lower-risk/less sensitive to CAPES impact) upgrades first, such as the structural [service-life extension program] and some of the retrofits for addressing obsolescence issues,” the defense consultant said. “At the same time, Taiwan can greatly benefit by closely cooperating with other countries, which are also working on F-16 upgrade projects of their own, especially South Korea, which is upgrading a fleet of over 100 aircraft, so as to try to maximize system commonality, mitigate technological and schedule risk and reduce cost.”


Singapore has two fighter programs of interest. The first is a $2.43 billion upgrade program for 60 F-16C/Ds released by the US government in January. Various defense sources indicate that the agreement is the same as the one offered to Taiwan, which is basically a cost-sharing deal involving the CAPES program.

However, following news out of Washington that CAPES could be defunded, cost-sharing with only Taiwan could elevate costs for both nations beyond their capacity to pay.

If CAPES is delayed, Singapore and Taiwan might turn to the solution being pursued by South Korea on its F-16 upgrade program. South Korea chose to go with BAE Systems as integrator and Raytheon’s RACR as the AESA selection. This is in contrast to the CAPES option with Lockheed as integrator and Northrop’s SABR as the AESA option.

“If Singapore chooses to go forward with the CAPES solution without the US as a participant, it would have to share costs related to non-recurring engineering issues with Taiwan,” a defense analyst said. “However, this is expected to be expensive, even if both Singapore and Taiwan share these costs.”

The other option is to drop the F-16 upgrade and go forward with the F-35 procurement. This option would not be surprising, as Singapore is an official F-35 security cooperative participant, along with Israel.


With US defense budget cuts stoking fears in Japan that the US is losing its grip on the region as a security guarantor as China pushes to fill that void, the Japanese are struggling against constitutional restrictions on militarization, budget constraints, antimilitary activists, and a rising tide of panic among nationalists that China intends to dominate the near seas and push through the Japanese-controlled Ryukyu Island chain into the Pacific.

Meanwhile, Japan is having problems motivating itself to move forward on the procurement of the F-35 stealth fighter from the US.

The reason appears to be a collection of problems: economic, political and cultural debates on what Japan is prepared to do to revive its military power without awakening ghosts from World War II that haunt the region, and how to procure expensive and sophisticated fighter jets that allow the country to benefit economically from technology sharing and coproduction.


In Indonesia, the air force is debating the replacement of aging F-5E fighters. Possible replacements include the Sukhoi Su-35, Boeing F-15 Eagle, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, French Dassault Rafale and Swedish JAS 39 Gripen.

The requirement is for one squadron of 16 fighters to be decided after the October presidential and legislative elections.

Indonesia has gone forward on the procurement of a squadron of 16 South Korean-built T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic trainer jets. So far, the air force has taken delivery of two jets, with final delivery by the end of the year.


The Australians plan to replace their F/A-18B Hornets with the F-35A. The first two F-35s are due to be rolled out this year and sent in January 2015 to the international F-35 training center at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

Australia has only two F-35s on order, but has committed to 12 more with initial operating capability slated for 2020.

However, if the Hornets are to be retired on schedule, three squadrons and a training unit are required by the end of 2022. This will take total procurement to 72 aircraft, with a further decision on a final batch of 28 to replace Australia’s newer F/A-18F Super Hornets to be made sometime in the next decade.

The Royal Australian Air Force will submit its purchase recommendations for government consideration early this year, with a decision expected in April. Options include a single tranche of 72 aircraft, or a phased approach that will require a series of government approvals.

New Zealand

New Zealand is the one country in the Asia-Pacific region without a fighter squadron, nor does it have plans to procure them.

However, New Zealand has selected new training aircraft. New Zealand’s Defense Minister, Jonathan Coleman, announced Jan. 27 that 11 of Beechcraft Defense’s T-6C Texan turboprop planes have been selected to supply the Defense Force’s new pilot training program.

Coleman added that upgrades of five C-130H Hercules cargo planes and six P-3K2 Orion patrol aircraft continue. Both were procured in the 1960s.

All five of the Defence Force’s AgustaWestland A109 training/light utility helicopters, and seven of its eight NH90 medium utility helicopters ordered have arrived in New Zealand. The NH90s have replaced 1960s-era Bell UH-1H utility helicopters, and the A109s have replaced aging Bell 47G Sioux training helicopters. ■

Tiarma Siboro in Jakarta, Paul Kallender-Umezu in Tokyo, Jung Sung-ki in Seoul, Nigel Pittaway in Melbourne and Nick Lee-Frampton in Wellington contributed to this report.

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